With its large immigrant population, Somerville is rich in culinary traditions. Now a new city initiative is offering local residents a chance to sample some of that cuisine, prepared by aspiring chefs from varied ethnic backgrounds.
The Somerville Arts Council recently opened Nibble Kitchen, a Union Square restaurant offering an array of international dishes served by local immigrants.
Open for dinner Thursday through Sundays and for lunch three of those days, Nibble Kitchen features dishes from Venezuela, Ethiopia, Brazil, Bolivia, and Bangladesh, the native countries of the six local cooks who currently staff the kitchen on a rotating basis.
Afruza Akther serves several dishes from her native Bangladesh during her Friday lunch slot, including spicy kati rolls, which are filled with chicken or vegetables; piyaju, a dish with red lentils, onions, green chilis, and cilantro; and spiced tea.
“I like to feed people and see what is their reaction,” Akther said, adding that she has been gratified by the good reviews she has received.
Somerville officials believe the Arts Council is the first such municipal agency in the country with its own restaurant. Nibble Kitchen, located in Bow Market on Somerville Avenue, began operating in October.
“It’s very exciting,” said Rachel Strutt, the Arts Council’s cultural director. “I think it’s such a good fit for Somerville because the city has such a diverse population — this reflects and celebrates that diversity.”
The new restaurant culminates a seven-year-old Arts Council initiative to support immigrant communities and the Union Square economy.
The program, called Nibble, also has encompassed international market tours of the square, a blog and a book on local food and culture, cooking classes, training and certification for immigrants interested in starting food businesses, and shared kitchen space for participants to prepare foods for sale at festivals and other venues.
Strutt said a brick-and-mortar restaurant was a natural next step in helping aspiring chefs because it provides a fixed location to serve customers and advances the city’s efforts to market the square as a “diverse and delicious” place to visit.
With the help of a MassDevelopment grant, the city built Nibble Kitchen in space leased from Bow Market, a center of independent food, art, and retail shops. The new restaurant has limited seating but customers also can eat in the market’s shared spaces.
The city provides a full-time manager and Arts Council staff time to operate the restaurant. The council keeps 10 to 35 percent of sales revenue — depending how busy the shift is — to help cover its operating costs, with the rest going to the chefs.
Strutt said the city anticipates the lineup of chefs will change over time as participants depart to start their own restaurants or to work at other ones.
Robson Lemos, a Brazilian native and multimedia artist who occupies the Friday night dinner time slot, dreams of one day having his own restaurant.
“I love it,” Lemos said of his work at Nibble Kitchen, calling it “an amazing opportunity” to create and present food in an artistic way.
Lemos — whose menu currently features caraje, a bean cake that he prepares with black-eyed peas, peanut sauce, and shrimp; and yuca fries, served with cheese, beef, or salad — particularly enjoys the chance to share his knowledge and enthusiasm about his dishes with his customers.
“Every food has some history behind it,” he said.